Q&A: Who Will Grab the ‘Tickets Out of Iowa’?

January 10, 2024 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

The 2024 U.S. presidential election season officially kicks off Monday with Iowa’s Republican Party caucuses, followed a little more than a week later by New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 primary elections for both the GOP and Democrats.

With President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump leading the pack in their respective parties, it may seem like the outcomes are all but foregone conclusions. But the early season primaries have, over the years, been the beginning of the end for some campaigns while breathing life into others.

UVA Today reached out to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a politics-focused publication of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, to find out what role the Iowa caucuses will play in choosing the final ballot for the country’s Nov. 5 presidential election and an educated guess on the outcomes.

Q. Iowa is holding party caucuses, while New Hampshire is holding a primary. Could you briefly explain the difference between the two? What is the advantage of one over the other?

A. A primary is basically what we think of as a normal election. Voters show up during regular hours on Election Day (or, increasingly, vote in advance in certain ways depending on the state) and cast their ballot for their preferred choice. 

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A caucus is different, in that it is a mass meeting of people held in the evening (7 p.m. Central at sites across the state in Iowa) where the participants generally engage in party business, hear from representatives of the candidates and then vote. So the caucus is a more time-consuming process for the voter – thus, turnout is lower than what it would be for a traditional primary. 

Generally speaking, the trend over time in the presidential nominating season has been toward more primaries and fewer caucuses. (This is especially true on the Democratic side). As someone who has a bias toward greater participation, I prefer primaries, but, of course, reasonable minds can differ on this. One problem with the caucuses is that because they are run a bit more unofficially than a traditional primary (and are party-run as opposed to state-run), we sometimes don’t even know who “won.” 

It took a couple of weeks to determine that Rick Santorum won the 2012 Iowa Republican caucus, and the 2020 Democratic caucus was such a mess that the Associated Press never determined a winner. Of course, who wins isn’t technically important, as the true prize is a share of delegates to the national nominating conventions, but given that Iowa is the first state that votes (at least on the Republican side, as Iowa was downgraded on the Democratic side for 2024 and presumably beyond), who gets the most support still has some symbolic value for candidates running in subsequent contests. 

It’s fairly common, though, for the first-place finisher in the Iowa caucus to not actually win the presidential nomination. Trump lost Iowa in 2016 and still won the nomination; in 2020, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg finished basically tied on top in Iowa, but neither won the nomination. 

(If you want more on the process, read this story from The Associated Press.)

Q. Trump holds a comfortable lead in the polls going into the Iowa caucus. Meanwhile, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are engaged in a war of words and television ads aimed at each other. If Trump is the likely winner, what do Haley and DeSantis hope to get out of this contest?

A. Assuming Trump gets the most support, DeSantis and Haley are playing for second place. Both will be looking for some momentum heading into New Hampshire. 

Of the two, DeSantis needs Iowa more. Recent polling has already established Haley as the biggest threat to Trump in the second contest, New Hampshire, so she could hypothetically win New Hampshire or come close to winning New Hampshire even with a poor showing in Iowa. 

Photo of Kyle Kondik

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at UVA’s Center for Politics, said the most interesting questions in the Iowa caucus will be which candidate takes second place to Trump and by how much. (Contributed photo)

DeSantis, meanwhile, has become something of an afterthought in New Hampshire, as he has focused much more on Iowa and its more conservative, more religious electorate. If he finishes out of the top two [in Iowa], he may face a lot of pressure to drop out given that he does not appear to be a good fit for New Hampshire. 

There is an old political saying that there are “three tickets out of Iowa.” But if DeSantis finishes in third, perhaps there will be only two – Trump and Haley. That said, there is at least one other candidate – Chris Christie – who likely will get very little support in Iowa, but is much more of a factor in New Hampshire (he currently polls ahead of DeSantis there). So the “three tickets” construction isn’t necessarily applicable, nor has it even really been always true in the past. Recent nominees John McCain (2008) and Joe Biden (2020) finished outside the top three in Iowa, for instance. 

Q. Any prediction on the Jan. 15 caucus outcome?

A. It would be a huge surprise, based on what we know now, if Trump did not finish first in the Iowa caucus. The more interesting questions are what the margin is and whether DeSantis or Haley finishes second. 

Q. In Sabato’s Crystal Ball, you call this year’s election process both sleepy and explosive at the same time.” Would you elaborate on that?

A. There are lots of unusual dynamics as we look ahead to the general election. If it is Biden versus Trump, you have two elderly and unpopular major party candidates competing in a rematch, which is rare in American presidential history. It is also exceedingly rare to have a former president running for his old job as a non-incumbent. 

The unpopularity of the frontrunners has given some oxygen to several potential third-party candidates. Both sides are going to believe that the stakes are extraordinarily high, and Trump – who has unprecedented legal problems – may see the election as the difference between being president and being incarcerated. 

I’d classify all of this as explosive. And yet, you also have a primary season that has not seemed to be all that competitive on either side, which is what makes the election sleepy, too. Iowa will help us determine whether the primary season, at least on the Republican side, is waking up or not. 

Q. What would have to happen for either Trump or Biden to be knocked off their parties’ ballots before November? 

A. If they dominate the primary season, as current polls suggest, it may be that nothing, save health or a personal change of heart that causes one of the candidates to withdraw, can prevent these candidates from ultimately being nominated.

One will sometimes read about party insiders, sometimes just simply referred to as “they,” collaborating to push a presumptive nominee aside. But in modern presidential nominations, there’s really not a mechanism for party insiders to take a nomination away from a presumptive nominee if that person has fairly secured a majority of the delegates during the nominating season. 

All of us will, of course, be watching how the U.S. Supreme Court rules regarding decisions by the Colorado Supreme Court and Maine secretary of state to bar Trump from their states’ primary ballots, based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. It seems unlikely that a Republican-dominated high court would allow states to take Trump off the ballot.

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Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications